New Galactic album 'Ya-Ka-May' is a taste of classic New Orleans

Music men: Galactic mixes and matches Crescent City sounds on its new CD. The band performs Monday at the 9:30 club.
Music men: Galactic mixes and matches Crescent City sounds on its new CD. The band performs Monday at the 9:30 club. (Taylor Crothers)

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By Jesse Serwer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 6, 2010

The New Orleans funk outfit Galactic has made a career out of updating its home town's musical traditions for a young audience that doesn't necessarily know Dr. John from Professor Longhair. But the quintet's latest effort, "Ya-Ka-May," which will be released by Anti- Records on Tuesday, might be the most thoroughly current overview of the Crescent City's musical landscape since Katrina. Along with luminaries like Allen Toussaint, the Rebirth Brass Band and Mardi Gras Indian chief Bo Dollis, guests on "Ya-Ka-May" include rising horn prodigies Trombone Shorty and Glen David Andrews and bounce rappers Big Freedia, Katey Red, Sissy Nobby and Cheeky Blakk.

"We wanted to dig to the next level where maybe someone from Washington or San Francisco or New York may not have heard of the artists that we were collaborating with," says guitarist Jeff Raines, one of two Chevy Chase natives (along with bassist Robert Mercurio) who founded Galactic after relocating to New Orleans in 1994. "There was an interest in showing another side of New Orleans that's not what you read about inside magazines."

Galactic has worked with rappers in the past, most notably on 2007's "From the Corner to the Block." But the dalliance with bounce, a purely New Orleans hip-hop variant that emphasizes call-and-response over lyricism, is the album's most intriguing proposition. Although bounce has had a significant influence on Southern rap since the early '90s (New Orleans rap star Juvenile, Memphis's Three 6 Mafia and Atlanta's Lil Jon have borrowed liberally from its playbook), artists who specialize in the style have rarely been afforded a national platform.

"Katrina helped us with that," says Big Freedia. "We were all displaced, and it brought our music to a lot of different areas. And people were like, 'What is that?' I traveled a lot [after] Katrina, trying to make people feel at home away from home. It was just way overdue to get the exposure anyway."

While bounce dovetails with other booty-centric regional sounds like Miami bass and Baltimore club music, it is unique in that the trailblazers knocking down doors for the style are gay and/or transsexual, including three of the four rappers featured on "Ya-Ka-May." (The overwhelming number of bounce artists are, it should be noted, straight.)

The audience willing to accept out-of-the closet rappers is typically quite limited in most cities, but bounce's self-described "sissies" boast of the popularity they enjoy in the New Orleans neighborhoods where they grew up.

"I can go anywhere from uptown to downtown, from the West Bank to East Bank to [New Orleans suburb] Kenner and I'm gonna get the same respect as a female or a male rapper," says Big Freedia.

Another hallmark of the style is its limited sonic palette. Virtually all bounce tracks utilize the 808-drum machine and one of two samples: The Showboys' "Drag Rap" (or "Trigger Man," as its known in bounce circles) and "Rock the Beat" by Derek B. By definition this makes the live backing tracks provided by Galactic on "Ya-Ka-May" not so much bounce but something entirely new.

"It was an intriguing idea to put some organic drums and traditional instrumentation underneath them," Raines says. "We didn't really know what was going to come out of it."

With its dual vocal attack, heavy fuzz guitar and marching-band drumrolls, "Katey vs. Nobby" lives up to its promise to chart unknown territory. "Double It," a percussive, cowbell-laden track featuring Big Freedia, evokes go-go, Washington's own contribution to the regional sub-genre sweepstakes (Raines and Mercurio cite go-go as an early influence from their Chevy Chase days).

While the other collaborations on "Ya-Ka-May" are perhaps less novel, they are often equally remarkable. "Bacchus" tastefully filters the vocals and piano playing of New Orleans R&B archetype Toussaint through post-hip-hop production techniques. Little-known bluesman Walter "Wolfman" Washington testifies with soul-chilling authority on "Speaks His Mind Again." Despite its breadth, the album never feels like pastiche, though.

With Mardi Gras just around the corner, and the Saints about to play in their first-ever Super Bowl, the project's timing couldn't be better. "Treme," a new HBO series from "The Wire" creator David Simon and set within the city's music community in the aftermath of Katrina, begins airing in April. (Galactic performs on an early episode of the show in which sax player Ben Ellman has a recurring role).

"We don't see this as our post-Katrina album," Mercurio says, declining to place "Ya-Ka-May" within a broader context. "It's just an album we wanted to do, and this was the time to do it."

Galactic, featuring Cyril Neville, will play the 9:30 club on Monday. The snowstorm forced the show to be moved from Saturday to Monday, but 9:30 will honor all tickets purchased for the original show.


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